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A TALE OF THREE LIONS
- Poverty, violence, corruption and the power of money hinder governance

The three lions on our emblem stand as metaphors for the three haqiqat that prevail in India — awaam, siyaasat and hukumat. These three — the people of India, India’s political life, and the Indian State — are, like the lions, majestic alike. But with each facing a different direction.

Awaam-e-Hind

Touring the Kannada countryside in 1927, Mahatma Gandhi asked a poor villager: “Who rules Mysore?” The answer was, “Some god.” If an average Indian were asked today, “Who rules India?” — the answer is likely to be, “God knows.” That two-word answer says more than any lecture can. The aam admi is perplexed — by the condition of his surroundings. And by his own condition.

Everything grows in Awaam-e-Hind.

Its population, of course, grows the fastest, thanks to the startling rise in average life expectancy at birth and a falling death rate. Its prosperity grows in huge strides. Assets grow, litigation grows. Does our poverty grow too? Statistics vary. The Union Planning Commission might not accept Arjun Sengupta’s figures unquestioningly. But being number 134 in the human development index behind a ravaged Sri Lanka is a statistic that speaks for itself. Ranking 66th among the world’s 88 hungriest countries is one that more than speaks for itself.

Awaam-e-Hind’s global presence grows, its image glows and draws admiration for all the ‘I’s of India — intelligence, intellect, initiative, innovation, information, infotainment, industry, investment, and of course IT, no longer confused with income tax. We should, and we do, bask in that glory. Not unoften, that other ‘I’, integrity, shows up feeling neglected by all the other roaring ‘I’s.

And what about crime?

Violence is crime’s signature. And that signature, in its many twists and loops, grows. And it often becomes oblique. Psychological violence continues to be encountered by vulnerable women. Commercial endorsements by our superstars of so-called skin-lighteners increase the vulnerability of girls in our colour-prejudiced society. An excellent new law has shown a return fist to domestic violence. But that villain is yet to see the strong arm of the law.

Does the sense of security in our minority communities, especially among their poorer sections, grow? If there is a real sense of insecurity among vulnerable sections of minority communities, it can be found inter se within those communities as well as by liberals, dissenters and nonconformists. Javed Akhtar is his own person. All of us know what that frank man has experienced. Intolerance, of course, is no monopoly of theologies. It is to be found in political communities too, where a difference of opinion can lead to excommunication, papal style. The active Indian liberal questions, objects and raises a finger to protest because in a liberal society that is the natural thing to do. And when he does that he can court danger. If an Indian who RTIs a department or a project and gets his answer, he is a persevering querist. But when he pays for his perseverance with his life, our liberal and open democracy stands brazenly assaulted. Except when traumas such as regularly witnessed in Kashmir and the one that has agonized Manipur for so long, and except when the chronic enervations of tribal and Dalit India rapidly move from individual to collective rage, the prominent mood of Awaam-e-Hind is that of pained dejection and cynical resignation, a ‘who cares?’-ness.

Siyaasat-e-Hind

Like so much else, money grows in our beloved land: it rules like “some god”. It rules through the moneyed man, but even more through the moneying or monetizing of our lives. In 1950, deposits — simple bank accounts — in India amounted to Rs 888 crore. Today, they amount to over Rs 750, 000 crore. In 1950, the currency in circulation in India was Rs 1,247 crore. Today it is Rs 5,17,434 crore. And we are talking of accounted money. But there is something even more important about money in India than its growth — its enhanced availability, its heightened visibility. And that is the change in its role and action. Money is no longer just an instrument of exchange; it is now a device for delivery.

Money can secure employment, admissions, promotions, preferments, transfers, exonerations. It can create delays, spur speed. Money can permeate that which was until only the other day the preserve of pure enjoyment — sport. Cricket is today as much about money as it is about the gentleman’s game — we can call it Mocket or Croney. It can threaten to tarnish the izzat and imaan of our nation’s collective integrity by appearing like pustules on a global sports event. Money can and does do worse. It can abduct, assault. It can finance hurt, it can fund harm, it can injure and manage to look injured. It can purchase death.

There is another thing that is growing in its spread and strength and may be said to be trying to ‘rule’ India. And which contributes not to cynical resignation, but to fear and anxiety. And that ‘thing’ is, with narcotics, a close cousin of money: namely, the illegal small firearm. India has not one million, not four million, not 10 million but, at a conservative estimate, 40 million illegal small arms floating around all over the land. Mischief, of course, does not come from illegal arms alone. The incidents of police or paramilitary firings and encounters, which have later been judged unjustified and unlawful, have been around the use of legal arms. So, going beyond the phenomenon of illegal arms in India, the question to ponder is the larger one of weapons and the ‘culture’ of weapons entering the bloodstream of our lives. It has done so in some parts of India devastatingly.

Elections are our pride. The Election Commission deserves our approbation for monumental patience, above all else, in the manner in which it keeps its cool, stays the course with the election laws, and after the catharsis of polling and counting, delivers the mandate which we have defined in the assurance of confidentiality, fairness and freedom. But the commission knows better than others how money, authorized and unauthorized, and human biceps and triceps, authorized in the armed personnel billeted to election duty and unauthorized in others, can play a role in the proceedings.

Currency notes come into the election bazaar first in container and cargo quantities, then in truckloads, going into wholesale, small retail and finally in attaché, thaila, jhola and jeb-sized portions every five years at the least and often oftener than that. They originate either legally, through licit company donations, or come from a myriad sources which, as Amit Bhaduri explained recently to a Chennai audience, necessarily and unavoidably go back to our natural resources such as mines, forests and land. Illegal transactions in all these yield harvests of black cash.

I wish the Reserve Bank of India depicted on the large denominations of our currency any person from the scroll of our great kings and emperors who commanded mints and treasuries or, better still, chose non-human images. But if it had to carry the likeness of Mahatma Gandhi, I wish it did so only on the coin of the smallest denomination, the one rupee coin which cannot cover large, inappropriate and concealed transactions of money for, among other dubious uses, the buying and selling of weapons of murder.

I believe the time has come for the laws in respect of the funding of our elections to be brought bravely and transparently under the public scanner once again, focused on the working of Section 293A of the Companies Act. But going beyond study, hard and exemplary action needs to be taken by those who are empowered to do so, whenever and wherever funds in excess of permissible quantums are patently employed. Simultaneously, the government and political parties should hearken to the public mood and disengage senior politicians, and certainly those who are in public office, from responsibilities in cash-rich sports federations. Their dual charge can only be to the detriment of either the sport or of the public office concerned. The public is no fool; it knows who is where for what. Our new chief election commissioner’s determined statement to the effect that he will address the question of money in elections is therefore deeply satisfying and hope-giving. We need to redeem our elections from the vice-like grip over it of money, for elections are precious to us, as is money in its rightful place and role. And, indeed, every licit firearm in the defence of the country and the protection of its people.

Our political spectrum diffuses the unpolluted beam of hope as it passes through the waters of political choice into a million competing colours. Our society is splintered into majority-minority, minority-sub-minority, community-sub-community, caste-sub-caste, and avarna-savarna. But the opportunistic exploitation of that splintering disgraces Siyaasat-e-Hind. The latest form of this exploitation is the retrieval, suddenly from a forgotten past, of the splintering splinter of splintered splinters — namely, gotra-sagotra being imposed on couples by village venerables. Even in his most pessimistic contemplations of the Hindu code bill, B.R. Ambedkar could not have imagined that 60 years after India’s becoming a republic it would see honour killings in the name of this atavistic recoil.

Which brings me to the last of the three ‘sher’.

Hukumat-e-Hind

The legislators of India, our lawmakers, have given to us constitutional amendments, notably the 73rd and 74th, and several new law enactments, which have changed India’s life rhythms. Some of the finest, most humanitarian, compassionate and even revolutionary laws that protect the weak, the jeopardized, and the vulnerable, especially women, have come from the community of India’s politicians. When we despair of the politics of individual politicians we must remember this larger picture.

It is also notable that it is our Parliament that has enabled the enemy property bill, meant to replace an ordinance with the same incredible title, and has put it on hold for further examination. My faith in the destiny of Indian self-correction has been strengthened by the news that there is serious rethinking going on about it. Another piece of legislation before our Parliament has been powered by world opinion. It is a bill to restrain the monster called torture. We should be making torture impossible. Instead, the bill raises the bar of the definition of torture, thereby indemnifying such acts as leave no mark on the individual’s body. Obviously, those who have vetted this bill are unaware of certain pieces of furniture and appliances in lock-ups, and of the infinite possibilities of the spoken word. I trust the bill will reverse all attempts to let torture slip through definitional openings.

The Indian policeman, too, does not make an easy hero and the dictionary of swear words is far too accessible to him. But let us also acknowledge the fact that he, too, is the easy butt of jokes in our free country. In how many countries are policemen shown in a negative light as in our cinema, stories, even in our media? So, I would like to believe that the day will come when a policeman passing by a thhelawala will not send shivers down the poor vendor’s spine, nor an income tax inspector’s unexpected visit cause the shop assistant in a commercial establishment to go running to arrange chai. I would like to believe that the day will come when a decent chair with a backrest and armrests replaces the interrogation seat beneath a naked bulb. The day will come — not very far from now, I am sure — when the civil and police administrations will be able to draw a distinction between civil rights activists, writers and sociologists on the one hand and those who are waging a war against the Indian State on the other, when no tribal person is presumed to be a Naxal, or his home to be a Naxal hideout, and his land a ‘territory lost to Maoist influence’, leading to the innocent man or woman’s interrogation and displacement. This can and will happen, thanks to the growing sensitivity of the State, to public opinion and to questions of image.

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